The 1992 comedic play ‘Cosi’, written by Australian prolific writer, Louis Nowra, is a play set in 1971 at a mental institution situated in Melbourne. The central protagonist, Lewis Riley, a young inexperienced director, endeavours to direct the inmates in a performance of Mozart’s opera, ‘Cosi Fan Tutte. ‘ Throughout ‘Cosi’, Nowra displays characters that are characterised as normal, but display rare various degrees of “insanity”. Over the course of the play, the playwright has encouraged his audience to question and understand the meaning of mental illness through the characters.
Lewis encounters a journey where his views on the mentally ill change for the better, as the inmates, are portrayed in all their imperfections and the black comic play and the humanity provoke the audience with the treatment and stereotypical views of “madness”. Over the duration of the play, Lewis’ views on mental illness change as he perceives that the inmates are still ordinary human beings despite their abnormal behaviour. Initially, Lewis is nervous and fearful of the mental patients as he sees them as, “madmen”, but he eventually comes to view the patients as amaged people rather than mental patients.
Lewis’ initial motivation was money, as he “[needs] the money,” but he was encouraged to “bring the patients out of their shells” through the project of putting on a play at a mental institution. However, Lewis “[came] out of [his] shell”, becoming more confident, more assertive and comes to see the patients as human beings, “[as] they are just normal people, well not quite normal”. The inmates are the main influence on Lewis’ transformative journey, as they help alter his understanding about the mentally ill through their interaction with him.
Lewis becomes personally committed to the patients as he chooses to continue the play than worry about organising the moratorium. This comes to show the Lewis came to be like one of them, and shows that he had changed and comes to see the world differently. Even though he started off just directing a play for a “mad people,” at a “funny farm,” he grew a strong bond with each character inside the institution despite all their imperfections that categorise them as insane. Inmates of the institution are depicted in all their flaws as they are characterised as “normal people who have done xtraordinary things, thought extraordinary thoughts”.
The mental patients of the institution are not clinically diagnosed with ‘disorders’ but inmate Doug is diagnosed with ‘pyromania’, as his fellow inmates just show rare signs of insanity and suffer from various addictions. This suggests that the “madness”, could be a matter of perspective or is it a clinical issue. All the patient’s display qualities of normal beings as, Roy displays passion, Doug shows confidence, Henry illustrations the ability to be strong and others show affection, violence, love, and fear.
They may have imperfections and display various degrees of “madness”, such as drug addictions, violent tendencies, anxiety issues, mood swings or even “pyromania”, but the majority of the time the inmates appear more “normal” than their visitors. Lewis’ close friends Lucy and Nick act not so normal in their concern for Viet Cong in terms of society. This proposes the question that, are the “sane” characters not normal? The patient on the inside of the institution do not have to be labelled but they are classified as “insane”, “looney”, “crazy”, and “mad”.
Additionally, social worker Justin mistakes Lewis as a patient asking “what ward [he] was from,” which shows that he could be easily mistaken as an inmate, therefore anyone can be mistaken as mad or labelled as a mental patient. Lewis also becomes a part of the group in the institution but that does not make him insane like they are supposed to be. Society labels humans because of their behaviour but the majority of the time mental illness can be a judgement. Nowra puts forth the idea that mental illness is not always a disorder, but it is also a judgment or perspective.
Nowra wants to show his audience as a society that the characters as inmates are just ordinary people, as he shows through mirroring himself, as Lewis, showing his views and beliefs towards the mentally ill. Having had experience with mental illness plays a large role in his writing of “Cosi” as he understands the concept of mental illness and has his strong views towards the subject, as both of his grandmothers were placed in institutions as they displayed signs of “madness”.
Even though his grandmothers went “mad”, at the end of the day they are still the same person just amaged inside and they are “still [his] grandmother[s]”. Nowra used his grandmother’s madness through Lewis as his “grandmother went mad” as well, and he “[pretended] to be his father. ” Nowra had experience with mental institutions and the madness of his grandmothers gave him, “intense interest” on the subject. The story about Lewis going to help inmates at an institution and direct them in a theatre performance is based on Nowra’s life when he was asked to do theatre with mental patients and direct a play called Trial by Jury’.
His understanding, experience and knowledge of mental illness upports the play’s plot and characters and help suggest that maybe the characters are normal and the views and treatment should be questioned. Nowra encourages his audience to query the treatment and views of the mentally ill through various aspects of the play. In the 1970’s inmates were wrongly admitted into mental institutions, since they were dangerous and putting society at risk. However, symptoms such as; alcoholism, homelessness, depression, sexuality, headaches and sleepiness could place innocent “sane” human beings behind closed doors.
Treatments ere wrongly used, as shock theory, frontal lithotomy and electroconvulsive therapy were supposedly a meant to fix the patients, as they thought they could just make their “lithium [get] upped”, only leaving them to be paralysed, emotionless or in intense pain. If patients are feeling down, they forced to “[have] shock therapy [as they are a] bit depressed. ” Nowra uses black humour over the course of the play to question the meaning of the mentally ill and understand what inmates experience inside an institution. Additionally, the black comedy also adds excitement and light to the darkness of the play.
The main concept, he is trying to get across to the audience is, that mental patients are just human beings except they show abnormal behaviour from time to time. Black comedy is used to turn serious issues into something comical. Black comedy is used to change the concept of the treatment as the inmate’s joke about the dangerous procedures as Cherry says Roy is doing a “do-it-yourself lobotomy” as he bangs his head continuously on the floor. Adding the treatments into the play help show the audience what mental patients go through and help the audience to question if the characters display insanity ue to the views on the mentally ill.
The inmates in the institution are depicted in all their flaws and seen by some as normal people who have been slightly damaged in the world, however, society labels them as insane and the stereotypical views of “madness” encourages the world to see them as their abnormal behaviour. Nevertheless, the sane characters are not so normal at times and can show signs of insanity. The playwright, Nowra’s ideas and experience push the audience and central protagonist to question the views of the mentally ill throughout the play.